Monday morning, almost 6am, and Chris had spent another sleepless night, the fifth in a row, in turmoil. Thoughts about something she might have to do within the next few days completely consumed her. And it wasn’t only the thoughts, though they were bad enough, it was also the associated feelings of dread, anxiety and panic.
As a manager with over 20 years experience she was comfortable with doing most things. But not this. She was gripped by something that filled her with fear to the extent that she wanted to run away. “What’s wrong with me, why can’t I do this?” she thought, berating herself repeatedly for her perceived inadequacies.
The previous Wednesday Chris had read about a forthcoming training programme and immediately felt excited about applying. However, part way through reading the application process she was stopped dead in her tracks. In order to be considered she was tasked with producing and submitting, by the Friday coming, a two-minute video presentation. The knot in her stomach was instantaneous, a wave of nausea washed over her. And for good reason, or so it seemed. The thought of presenting absolutely terrified her.
Fortunately though, her critical inner voice immediately took charge and provided her with all the reasons she needed for not applying. “What a relief, I’m off the hook”, she said to herself. “If I don’t apply I don’t have to worry about doing a presentation, and if I don’t have to do a presentation I no longer have to feel the way I’m feeling.”
Not at all, Chris really wanted to be on the training programme.
It would be an odd individual who got relief from not doing something they really wanted to do, and yet that’s the conflicting situation so many people end up in. Stalemate. Relieved at not having to do something they’re fearful of, frustrated and disappointed at not being able to do something they’re attracted to. To add to the problem it isn’t unusual for people to also then get caught up in a loop of negative, self-criticism.
Very often people think that the ‘problem’ is with them personally, that they’re defective or dysfunctional or damaged in some way. After all, public speaking is something everyone else seems to take in their stride, is it not? No it isn’t. The truth is the paralysing effect thousands of people experience when even just considering the possibility of having to speak in front of a group – whether that be an interview, a team presentation or a conference speech – is incredibly common. So common in fact that it should be viewed as the normal, not abnormal, response. The fear of public speaking, or ’glossophobia’ to give its formal name, is possibly the number one fear for most of the population, considered to rank even higher than the fear of death.
Is it any wonder so many people stop before they even get started?
But what exactly is it that people are fearful of? Whilst the fear has its roots in many sources, from experience I’d say it’s rare someone actually has a fear of public speaking. Most of the people I’ve worked with are bright, articulate professionals who speak with other people every day. It’s not about speaking.
And nor are the majority of them tormented by another commonly held belief, that it’s about the ‘fear of failure’. Sure, it’s connected with a fear of failing and I’ll get to that shortly.
It could be argued that the fear of failure stems from unrealistic expectations people have about themselves and about what they should be capable of from the outset? Beliefs sustained by the dis-ease of perfectionism: ‘I have to get this perfectly right, the first time, and every time’. In truth that’s like saying you should be able to ride a bike from the very first moment you get on it. Life isn’t like that, no matter who you are or whatever it is you want to do. Especially if you want to do something well, including being you.
When we further explore what also drives fear, other common feedback includes:
- What if I get it wrong?
- What if I look stupid?
- What if I sound as if I don’t know what I’m talking about?
- What if I forget what to say?
- What if I don’t know what to say?
- What if someone asks a question I don’t know the answer to? (always high on the list)
So, whilst it may seem that most, if not all, of the ‘stuff’ that gets in the way of getting started is the notion of not being able to do all of the things they’ve mentioned – failing – what really paralyses people and stresses them to death is ‘what will others think of me if I fail?’
And even then we’ve not got to the actual root of the problem.
Thinking, overthinking, and catastrophic thinking…and that then leading to the feelings that take us down the path of paralysis. (Did you know you can do the opposite and slip into wonderfully resourceful and empowering states?)
Anyway, we could explore the topic of fear forever and not move any further forward. It’s in the way though so let’s not fight it or deny its existence. My suggestion is that you accept it, surrender to it even. If you believe the thing that’s stopping you is the feeling you’ve labelled fear, it isn’t. If you believe you have to overcome the fear before you get up and speak, you’ll be waiting a long time. Possibly forever. (And, by the way, if ever you meet someone who’s about to get up and speak, who tells you they feel no fear before speaking in front of a group, check their pulse. Chances are there won’t be one. Do them a favour and call the emergency services. Or call an undertaker.)
Why not allow the feeling you’ve labelled fear to be your guide to what will help you do whatever it is you want to do? A sign that you’re stepping out of your comfort zone, a signal that there’s growth on the horizon, if action rather than avoidance is your response.
All of the ‘what ifs’ identified above provide us with clues and questions to guide our thinking on a way forward. Clients, whether it’s in personal coaching or a workshop, often begin by telling me they want to be confident speakers or presenters. Great speakers are prepared speakers and confidence comes with competence. So if you want to get up and speak or give a great presentation: make sure you’ve done your homework, done the preparation, and put in the practice to make it happen.
And, just in case you’re wondering whether or not Chris did her presentation and got a place on the course? She did indeed.
She gave herself a break, and got out of her own way.
You can do the same.